Why the offshore wind industry should ‘stop, collaborate, and listen’

If Australia is to achieve its net zero targets and rapidly establish an offshore wind industry, it needs to embrace a collaborative approach to marine baseline studies.

Whether you love or hate the song, American rapper Vanilla Ice’s 1990 debut single ‘Ice Ice Baby’ begins with some wise words: “stop, collaborate and listen”.

It’s a call-to-action that Australia’s offshore wind industry would do well to heed. Because now is the perfect time to establish the collaborative approach to marine studies that could propel our industry forward.

Many marine mammal and seabird species have broad regional distributions and foraging ranges. We know that these will overlap multiple feasibility licence areas within a single declared area for offshore wind. But at the moment every developer is proposing to undertake all of the marine studies required to support environmental impact assessment of their project independently.

This is neither time- nor cost-effective. And when environmental protection is the primary goal, it makes no sense to duplicate survey programs that could generate more impact on protected areas or sensitive species while producing much the same data.

So, let’s stop attempting to do marine baseline studies alone, listen to those industries and countries that have worked together successfully before, and collaborate to achieve a better outcome for the offshore wind industry, and for our marine environment.

The need for marine baseline studies

Baseline studies allow us to understand the current state of marine ecosystems and assess their ability to adapt and thrive with future changes. They also help us to understand the importance of proposed wind farm locations to marine species for feeding, breeding, migration, and more.

Offshore wind is a new prospect for Australia. And while we can draw on marine environmental intel gained from offshore oil and gas investigations and other research activities, there are significant gaps in our understanding that need to be filled.

Without baseline marine studies, developers don’t have the information they need to understand the potential impacts that a new wind farm could have on local species and habitats. The risk is that they may not design or build wind farms suited to Australian conditions.

Studies also provide a baseline against which to measure marine species’ presence, numbers and behaviour post-construction. This is vital, as it allows the industry to demonstrate that there were no unacceptable environmental impacts from construction and operation of the offshore wind farm.

Responsibility for undertaking marine studies

In Australia, the responsibility lies with developers to understand and manage the risks and impacts of their offshore projects.

In other countries, governments often take on the responsibility for completing baseline studies to minimise impact and maximise efficiency. In some cases, they even complete the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for specific licence areas.

At the time of writing, I believe there are around 30 offshore wind farm proposals for the declared area off Victoria’s Gippsland coast. While not all will be approved, some will - and all of these developers will need the same or similar baseline data to support the planning and approvals of their projects.

Industry will remain responsible for studies throughout the operations phase of approved wind farms. So, we need a framework that supports the efficient collection of baseline data and monitoring over appropriate spatial and temporal scales, and that meets multiple end-users’ needs.

Collaboration the best (and only) way forward

What we are seeing in Gippsland and other proposed wind farm areas is developers caught in an intensely competitive process to gain licences and progress quickly towards approval and development. It’s a race to secure the resources needed to deliver baseline studies ahead of competitors.

An individual project approach rather than a collaborative one may create unnecessary expense for developers and undue risks to study species. It also has the potential to create conditions where a lack of data transparency could emerge and community support and industry social licence is eroded.

Australian regulators have recognised the challenges faced by developers in collecting suitable baseline data for some time. This prompted the recent publication of the revised NOPSEMA and Offshore Infrastructure Regulator Research Strategy – which called for a collaborative, regional-scale approach for offshore wind.

Add to this the fact that there simply is no way to collect all the necessary data without collaboration in certain cases. For example, the listing and protection status of some species means that government recovery teams and researchers may be the only people permitted to interact with these animals.

Without sufficient scientific evidence to support the environmental impact assessments, regulators may be forced into precautionary decision-making. This can lead to delays in project approval, which isn’t just bad for developers and their projects, but for Australia’s communities and our net zero goals, too.

A collaborative approach

Collaborative baseline studies are not a new concept. A great example is the excellent collaborative research currently being done in the oil and gas decommissioning space. Their feedback - they wish their sector had followed this path much earlier.

Collaborative programs are also being delivered for the offshore wind industry overseas. Feedback from our RPS colleagues in the UK is that the wind industry there echoes their colleagues in oil and gas. They wish they had started collaborating sooner.

Here in Australia, we have an incredible opportunity to design and deliver region-wide baseline marine survey programs that meet multiple end-user needs, including those of developers, regulators, governments, estate managers, investors, and the community.

At RPS, we’re working on a collaborative marine baseline program approach and have received early interest and support from several companies. As an industry, we don’t have to wish we’d started earlier – we can begin now.


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